A perceptive (and talented) art student by the name of Chris Campbell recently asked me this impressive question:
“What do the animation industry pros say about us when we’re not around?”
“Have they noticed any common mistakes or bad habits in current student portfolios?”
“What do most pros think we need to work on?”
Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone.
…there is, in fact, one general criticism that comes up pretty much every time I discuss current student work with animation industry artists.
Just this past week, I had three different conversations with three different artists and they brought it up every time the topic of student work came up.
It isn’t going to be easy to hear.
But because I love you, I have to share it with you…
For many aspiring concept artists, the answer to this question could be the most important critique you’ve ever been given.
Except Maybe You…
What I’m about to share with you is a generalization.
Generalizations are, by definition, inaccurate.
But I think this one is accurate enough to be helpful.
I wouldn’t even bring it up if I didn’t believe there was an invaluable, essence of truth in the resounding sentiment that most current art students are caught in The Technique Trap.
It’s A Trap!
Techniques are fun.
Please remember I said that when, five minutes from now, I’m lobster-face-red and shouting at you like Admiral Ackbar…
Unfortunately, technique is often the only thing young artists ever think about.
Now, if I’m talking about you, don’t feel bad.
It makes perfect sense that young artists obsess over technique.
…because technique is the most apparent.
It’s the thing you see first.
Technique is the surface of the art.
But technique is also shallow.
If the only thing you’re thinking about is technique, then you might be making shallow art.
The problem with so many digital painting tutorials is that they emphasize the What? instead of the Why?
…the surface instead of the structure.
Sure, it feels great to learn how to create a cool light bloom effect in Photoshop, push pixels around with the Smudge Tool or mimic the style of your art heroes.
…but techniques (especially digital painting techniques) are small solutions for small challenges.
Visual storytelling is a big challenge.
Emotional visual storytelling is an epic challenge.
Your First Day As A VisDev Artist…
On the day you get hired as a Visual Development artist for an animated film, you will have to match the style of the film on day one.
(Maybe day two if you have orientation on day one.)
If you’re part of early development, the style of the film will be less clearly defined but there will still be a specific art direction.
In most cases (especially when you’re just starting out) your department coordinator will hand you a style guide and walk you around the halls of the studio to see the development art.
You might have a meeting with your art director where she will explain the design of the film to you but I wouldn’t count on it.
She put all that time and energy into creating the style guide so she wouldn’t have to waste precious time repeating herself for every new hire.
The point is, you can’t expect the studio to keep you on the payroll for a month while you try to hammer the square-peg of your nine digital painting techniques into the round-hole of your first assignment.
In the animation industry, artistic professionalism is the ability to synthesize style, reference and story in a way that is both artful and appropriate.
You can’t pull that off if you’re in The Technique Trap.
Artistic professionalism synthesizes style, reference and story in a way that is both artful and appropriate.
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You’ll Have To Improvise.
Noises Off! is a comedic play about a play that goes wrong during a live performance.
You get to watch both the on-stage train wreck of the performance as well as the backstage shenanigans of the “actors.”
(If this doesn’t make sense or you just want to learn more about the play, watch this video.)
There’s a point at which the play goes so far off-track that the characters have to start improvising, making the play up as they go along, trying to cover-up and play-off the ridiculous consequences of their mistakes.
But one of the “actresses” can’t improvise. (She’s not so bright.)
All she can do is recite the lines she has memorized.
This, of course, is hilaious because all of the other characters are pretending that the mistakes are all part of the act. But nothing the actress is saying makes sense despite the fact that she’s the only one who is sticking to the script.
My point is, this is the same kind of problem that many aspiring concept artists don’t even know they have.
They have invested so much time and energy into learning (copying?) specific (often trendy) techniques that they would have no idea what to do if someone asked them to do more than what they have memorized.
Stop Hammer Time!
“I call it The Law Of The Instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
Mature artists see past technique.
Mature artists see past the tools.
Mature artists aren’t slaves to software.
If your art education consists of little more than collecting digital painting techniques, it is unlikely that you’ll survive (let alone thrive) on a real animated production.
Tools and techniques will fail in scenarios where immersive visual stories are being told.
Imagination is vital and fundamentals are forever.
Technique is essential for matching production styles and creating appealing images.
…but in order to become a mature artist, you must escape The Technique Trap.
“Are you stuck in The Technique Trap? [link]”
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7 Ways To Escape The Technique Trap:
1.) Make Consistent, Liberal Use Of Reference, Studies & Comps:
Listen to this podcast episode for some clear direction.
2.) Read Wisely:
3.) Call The Authorities:
Ask an animation industry pro for help.
…but not just any animation industry pro.
[You can meet many great animation artists who are also great communicators at CTN-X.]
If you’re a student or an alumni, maintain relationships with your favorite teachers.
Most art teachers I know would be delighted to continue a relationship with you past the end of the semester. …past graduation.
But you’ll have to take the initiative.
4.) Join A Circle Of Trust:
You’ll be amazed at the objectivity and progress that comes from forming a healthy critique group or collaboration.
5.) Try To Look Past The Technique:
You can make amazing progress with the right mindset.
The next time you see a concept painting that you admire, try to look past the technique. Just try it and see what happens.
Try to disconnect the surface from the structure.
(Sometimes it’s easier and more insightful to do this with work you aren’t crazy-in-love-with.)
Record your observations and explain them to someone else. This will help to solidify the lesson for you.
Spend more time drawing from observation, painting and reading than you spend learning surface-level digital tricks.
Strong draftsmanship is the antidote for soft, soupy anatomy and layouts.
Learn Techniques Within A Meaningful Context:
When you do set aside time to develop your techniques, it’s wise to find a teacher who answers Why? and How? …as well as What?
You might have heard me mention my new Digital Painting Course called The Magic Box: Everything I Know About Digital Painting.
This course is overflowing with cool digital painting techniques.
…but the techniques are taught within a meaningful context.
…you watch the Why? happen right in front of your eyes.
If you’re ready to start thinking like a painter, add significant depth to your visual stories and connect with a passionate, laser-focused, no-B.S. community of like-minded artists, then join us in The Magic Box today!
Please Share Your Thoughts:
Are you caught in The Technique Trap?
What is the one next action you are going to take to start your escape?